Thursday, 30 May 2024

Written by Nicola Feuchtwang, LBC rabbinical student

“Pay most attention to the behaviour you want more of.”

“’DO’ instructions are easier to understand and to obey than ‘don’t’”.

“Make it easy for me to succeed.”

“Help me to notice my successes rather than my failures or shortfalls.”

I created a colourful little poster about ‘Influencing Behaviour’ many years ago as a clinic handout for parents struggling with children whose development was not proceeding as the textbooks said it should.  If the feedback is to be believed, it was one of the simplest and most useful things I produced in a long career. There are probably still copies of it in local school and nursery staff rooms, on noticeboards in outpatient departments, and on friends’ fridge doors too.

I am a committed advocate of the carrot rather than the stick, of the promise rather than the threat.  I am not opposed to rules – on the contrary, I know that clear expectations, firm consistent boundaries, and a predictable relationship between action and consequence, help us to feel secure, even when we are testing the limits as toddlers or adolescents. Of course it is possible to induce obedience (whether in child, soldier, worker or dog) by means of fear and punishment too, but I reject utterly the notion that it is the only or the best way to achieve it, and I worry about the example it sets and the relationships which ensue.

Which means that I have a serious problem with Parashat Bechukkotai, the final two chapters of the book of Leviticus. First comes a tantalising promise of peaceful, plentiful bliss as a reward for obedience, but we are then threatened with its antithesis: a terrifying message couched as prophecy (so terrifying in fact, that by tradition we read this passage, and its counterpart in Deuteronomy, only rapidly in an undertone, and never allocate it a young person as a Bar Mitzvah portion).  “If you are disobedient, God says, and I anticipate that you will be, I will have to punish you, I will wreak misery upon you” (Leviticus 26:16).  And if you persist in your ‘keri’ (hostility), the next punishment will be worse, … and so on. A truly horrendous, bleak picture is built of bereavement, disease, devastation, hunger, cannibalism, exile, heartsickness and a sense of abandonment by God. The threats are echoed in some of the prophetic books such as Ezekiel, and the nightmare is realised in the book of Lamentations which we read on Tisha B’Av. It will prevail, we are warned, until the land has recovered, and we/Israel are truly remorseful.

At a certain level, this is a familiar contract – compliance will be rewarded, disobedience punished.  Provided the terms are clear and both parties agree the deal despite its harshness it does not sound completely unreasonable in prospect.

My difficulty lies with how the Cause and Effect conviction can play out in retrospect.  If all is going well for me, it is too tempting to believe that I have earned my good fortune through virtue. In the words of the song from Sound of Music:

“Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good.”

The corollary is that when bad things happen, in some way I must have brought this state of affairs upon myself.  It is ‘natural’ – or just a result of lifelong messaging – to feel a sense of guilt or shame.  If that prompts some constructive reflection and learning, it may do no harm, but such reasoning becomes intolerable when it leads others to assume, like Job’s ‘friends’, that those suffering misfortune must have deserved their fate. Worse still, if a culture of victim-blaming enables the ‘righteous’ observer to consider themselves absolved of any responsibility for the situation.

I concede, however reluctantly, that perhaps the ‘carrot’ may be more effective for the child, the donkey, the individual than it is for a disparate and diverse group of people struggling to achieve consensus about how to run their shared affairs. Perhaps, there is also a place for the ‘stick’. After all, Leviticus is in the business of brit/covenant, and of establishing the future norms of a society in which the people are collectively responsible for their fate.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, writing about this parashah towards the end of his life (Covenant & Conversation 1980) argued that:

“A prophecy is not a prediction but a warning. It describes a fearful future in order to persuade the people to avert it…

“The stick is a more powerful motivator than the carrot…Without punishment, there is no effective law, and without law there is no society…being warned of the bad helps us to choose the good… Too often we make the wrong choices because we don’t think of the consequences.”

In various writings, he cites examples of climate change, of financial crises, of the need to resist tyrants, where single errors or crimes can have dire widespread effect and it is only a myriad individual carefully considered choices which can hold a society together.

“A person is held responsible for the sins of their family, of their community, and even of the whole world, if they fail to use their influence for the correction of wrongs.” (Babylonian Talmud 54b, as quoted in Forms of Prayer 1977)

It is an awesome responsibility which must be reflected in our choices about whether and how we protest injustice at home and elsewhere, how we speak with each other, how we use our vote.

I can accept the communal stick, but I still believe in the carrot.

Copies of my little poster are available on request!

Nicola Feuchtwang, LBC rabbinical student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.